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Pedro Tijerina, 80; Founder of the Civil Rights Group MALDEF

May 17, 2003|Claudia Luther Times Staff Writer | Times Staff Writer

San Antonio attorney Pedro "Pete" Tijerina, founder of MALDEF, a major voice for Latinos on civil rights, voting rights, redistricting and school integration issues in California and other Western states, has died. He was 80.

Tijerina, who had diabetes and heart problems, died Wednesday at Metropolitan Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, his wife told the San Antonio Express-News.

MALDEF -- the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund -- was founded in 1968 when Tijerina became enraged with how Latinos were being treated in the courts. Over the years, it has been involved in many redistricting cases and a landmark lawsuit that declared Texas' funding system for schools unconstitutional.

"Every state lawmaker that deals with redistricting or school finance now knows that they will have to pass the MALDEF litmus test if they want to avoid legal action," University of Texas-San Antonio political scientist Richard Gambitta told the Express-News in 2001.

Born in Laredo, Texas, in 1922, the son of a truck driver and a homemaker, Tijerina left home at the age of 15 to join a military training corps organized to encourage high school students to join the Army, but was too young to enlist. He later joined the Army Air Forces, serving in the Pacific.

"Basically, I learned in the military that I was a citizen ... not a hyphenated citizen," Tijerina said during a 2000 interview.

After being discharged, he attended the University of Texas at Austin and studied law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. Although he did not earn a law degree, he passed the Texas bar exam in 1951 and became a criminal trial lawyer.

While practicing law, he observed that jurors who were not Latino "were not the peers of my clients" and that they "wouldn't hesitate to render guilty verdicts," he said in a 1990 interview.

In the 1960s, he represented a woman whose leg was amputated after a traffic accident.

Tijerina objected because there were no Latino jurors, saying his client could not receive a fair trial. Another trial date was set and another jury list was provided, this one with two Latinos: one was dead and the other was undocumented.

Tijerina settled the case out of court for less than he believed the woman deserved.

After that, Tijerina, who had worked as the state civil rights chairman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, was "determined to mount a major battle to end jury discrimination in Texas," MALDEF said in a statement this week on Tijerina's death.

Working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he got seed money to write a proposal to the Ford Foundation to help Latinos with civil rights cases.

He eventually obtained a Ford Foundation grant of $2.2 million -- twice what he had requested -- to set up MALDEF.

MALDEF is now based in Los Angeles and has offices in San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Sacramento and Washington. Its services include advocacy, community education and outreach, leadership development, and higher education scholarships.

"Pete Tijerina set into motion a quest for justice that continues to be as relevant today as it was more than three decades ago," Joseph Stern, head of MALDEF, said in a statement this week.

He is survived by his wife, Grace, and three children.

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